Ruppersberger Outlines Cure for U.S. Space Ills

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The ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence prescribed a number of fixes April 12 for longstanding issues in the U.S. space enterprise, including relaxing export controls, fostering competition in space launch and increasing reliance on domestically manufactured rocket engines.

The United States also is not attracting enough young people to space as a career field, and more interactive robotic missions to places like the Moon and Mars could help fix that, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Ruppersberger previously chaired the House Intelligence technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, which produced a report on the health of the nation’s space enterprise. All of the findings of that report are still valid, and little has been done to address the problems it identified, he said.

The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which govern space-technology exports, are still hampering U.S. firms competing in the international marketplace, Ruppersberger said. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is well aware of the hurdles industry faces and is looking into reforming the regulations, but so far it has not taken any decisive actions, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the United States pays more for launch services than any other nation and those costs are rising. Ruppersberger said he was pleased to hear that Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, Calif., plans to build a heavy-lift variant of its Falcon 9 rocket to compete for Pentagon launch contracts. Competition will help reduce the nation’s launch costs, he said.

The Atlas 5 rocket that carries many of the nation’s most important national security payloads to orbit relies on the Russian-built RD-180 main engine. The United States should invest in domestically producible Atlas 5 engines to lessen its dependence on Russia, which Ruppersberger noted will soon be exclusively responsible for ferrying U.S. astronauts to the international space station.

Ruppersberger also criticized the U.S. government for not yet agreeing on a plan to replace the Moon-bound Constellation program that the administration killed last year. The nation must commit to returning to the Moon and beyond, he said. In lieu of expensive human missions, NASA could develop robotic planetary missions that scientists and students could potentially interact with. This would both reinvigorate the space industrial base and inspire a new generation of young people to enter the space work force, he said.